After a second, we discovered that, no, in fact they hadn't changed anything -- it was just that they'd given us the real menu (in German) for the first time, instead of the special English or French menu. The hostess was new, and we'd actually managed to get through the opening info (four for dinner; no, we don't have a reservation) without saying "What? Sorry, we don't speak German -- English or French, please." So we'd passed for people who speak German!
Then -- to live up to the expectation placed on us -- we ordered in German and spoke to the waitress only in German all evening! And I don't mean just pointing at items on the menu (though that helped). We used whole sentences. Relevant sentences, even.
After a year and a half living in a German-speaking country, finally being able to order in a restaurant is a pretty pathetic milestone. And note that this doesn't mean I can carry on a normal conversation in German, it just means that ordering in a restaurant is a pretty standard and structured type of dialog that is covered extensively in my "Teach Yourself German" recordings. (Actually, I wish I knew how to say "I'd like the same thing as that guy" -- it would really help out when ordering at cafeteria-style places...)
But I'm learning new words every day. As predicted, as soon as I learned of the existence of the word "Entschuldigung" I started hearing it everywhere. And the same thing keeps happening with other words. Every day I make a little more progress at deciphering the newspapers and billboards. It shouldn't be so hard, right?
Whenever it's time to make small-talk in a professional or business context, this topic (learning German) is golden!! Everybody has an opinion on High German vs. Swiss German or on the Swiss version of High German (which people think is the same as how people speak in Germany, but *haha* it isn't!). I always end up giving some variant of my usual story about how it's hard to get any exercise in German since everybody immediately switches to English as soon as they notice that I don't speak much German. I can count on one hand the few times people have insisted on continuing to speak to me in German after it became clear that I was stumbling over the simplest things. (Actually on one finger, now that I think about it.) And on that one occasion, I was surprised by how much I really did understand. But it's like with physical exercise -- it's easier to go out waking if you need to in order to get somewhere, but if you have to get out of your easy chair and force yourself onto the treadmill, too often you think "I'm tired, I'm busy, I'll do it tomorrow." Then there's the added complication that everybody's speaking in Swiss German but everything is written in High German, and they're not the same, and I don't understand either one of them.
"Well, German is a very hard language to learn," remarked one Swiss German guy at a business-social I was attending. Is it? I think he was just being nice, giving me an excuse for my pathetic level of progress. Learning German shouldn't be so hard for an English-speaker -- the two languages are related! The real problem is just that the call of reading blogs is so much stronger than my desire to listen to "Teach Yourself German" recordings. On the other hand, languages do vary in difficulty, and German has its drawbacks.
Here's my list of "what's wrong with German as a foreign language":
Too many verb forms (per verb) to memorize, and especially too many irregulars. And if that weren't bad enough, the nouns have different forms too, and they have three genders. For most words, the genders are distributed pretty randomly, and, notably, they don't align with the French genders of the same words. (What's with the neuter "das bier"? Everybody knows beer is feminine! "la bière," aah, perfect!) Continuing in the tradition of Mark Twain, I should now make fun of the word order in the sentence (all the verbs at the end...?), but at least the word order seems pretty consistent once you've learned a short list of amusing rules about it. Not like the forms of the word "the": If you say "der X", then X must be masculine... unless we're in the dative case, then saying "der X" means that X is feminine. Becuase the whole genders-and-cases thing wasn't challenging enough on it's own, they've decided to make your brain play Twister.
On the other hand, the common wisdom says that with English, it's easy to learn enough to get by, and then -- on top of that -- you can keep learning more and improving indefinitely. This may well be true. Unlike many languages, English words really don't have a lot of grammatical forms to memorize. Instead, English does a lot with helping words. A surprising thing I've found when comparing languages is that English has more verb tenses than the average language, but forms them in regular ways using helping words. As a fun little exercise, try and explain the different nuances expressed by the following:
- I waited.
- I've waited.
- I'd waited.
- I was waiting.
- I used to wait.
- I used to be waiting.
- I've been waiting.
- I'd been waiting.
Then tell me if there are any other standard past forms I've missed...
English has a few strikes against it for newbies, though. For one thing, the spelling is completely insane. I used to think that all languages have wildly irregular spelling, but, in fact, no. Try explaining a "spelling bee" to a Brazilian. In Brazil, it wouldn't make sense to try to compete over who can guess a word's spelling because in Portuguese, words are spelled exactly as they sound. French is also a big offender in the crazy spelling department ("beaux" = "bô"???), but I think even French is more regular in terms of limiting the number of ways a given phonetic syllable can possibly be spelled. And it's not just the common, little words in English that have bizarro spelling. When reading the word "apostrophe," could you guess the pronunciation if you didn't happen to speek English (or Greek)? In English, not only are archaic forms preserved in the amber of spelling rules, but multitudes of foreign words are welcomed in without being wholly assimilated.
So, how do your language experiences stack up?